About this book

Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society

What institutions and policies are most conducive to human flourishing? This book, The Good Society, is my attempt at an answer.

The book is wide-ranging, covering topics from jobs to incomes to foreign policy to religion. It’s organized around the ends we seek in a good society — democracy, economic security, freedom, happiness, and more. These ends drive the content. I make no attempt to identify a set of core principles or concepts that can be deployed across issue areas. Instead I ask questions such as “How do rich countries lift up the poor?” and “Why haven’t Americans gotten happier?,” and I try to answer those questions using available information.

The book is evidence-based. Good answers to these questions require attention to theory. But while theory gives us hints about how things work, it rarely gives us answers. For answers, we need data.

I focus on the world’s rich longstanding-democratic nations, with a particular emphasis on the United States. Most of the people in the world live elsewhere, and they tend to be less affluent, less secure, and less happy. They therefore deserve greater attention from scientists. Yet figuring out what works in a context of affluence and stable democracy holds lessons not just for the 20 or so countries that I concentrate on, but also for nations that will sooner or later join this group.

I emphasize the United States for three reasons. It’s my country. It’s by far the largest of the rich democratic nations, with about one-third of their total population. And it is, in some respects, the country with the longest road to travel to reach the good society. America has some outstanding features, but it also has no small number of shortcomings.

As the chapter list suggests, the book covers a lot of ground. You can, however, read as little or as much as you like. Each chapter is intended to stand on its own, to be digestible without having read any of the others.

Who is the audience? Anyone and everyone. I’ve written the book to be intelligible to policy makers, college students, and newspaper readers, but high school students, too, will be able to read much of it without difficulty. Many of the chapters assume some basic knowledge about modern societies, economies, and governments, but not much. I’ve tried to keep jargon to a minimum. I include lots of data displays (graphs), but they make it easier to understand, not harder. There is some statistical analysis, but where it gets sophisticated (not often), I explain it in prose.

The book will also, I hope, be helpful for readers with more advanced knowledge. If it isn’t, then I’ve simplified too much.

For now, the book isn’t available in hard copy. It’s solely online. This has some significant advantages: it’s free to readers; it’s accessible by computer, tablet, or phone; I can make the book available piece by piece, rather than having to wait until it’s complete; and I can update chapters regularly, with the updates available to readers immediately.

Comments are welcome. If you think I’ve gotten something not quite right, or altogether wrong, please let me know (lane.kenworthy@gmail.com).

I’ve received help from an array of generous souls. I’m grateful to all.

  • A suggestion by John Campbell gave me the initial idea for this project. John also offered valuable comments on early versions of several chapters.
  • Larry Bartels, Christopher Jencks, Beth Truesdale, and participants at the “Successful Societies” conference in Toronto in November 2011 gave me useful feedback on early drafts of the “Is Income Inequality Harmful?” chapter.
  • Heather Harper provided very helpful research assistance for the “Civic Engagement,” “Inclusion: African Americans,” “Tolerance,” and “Trust” chapters. Jordan Mosby did the same for the “K-12 Education” chapter, as did Taylor Campbell for the “Mental Health” chapter.
  • My biggest debt is to students in my “American Society” and “The Good Society” classes. I’ve taught one or both of these courses nearly every year since 2008, first at the University of Arizona and since 2015 at the University of California-San Diego. Questions, comments, and arguments from students have helped to clarify my thinking on a number of the book’s topics. I look forward to more.